Our “Characteristic” Obedience or God’s Righteousness?

Scott Hafemann’s The God of Promise and the Life of Faith (Crossway, 2001)

In footnote 6 on p244, Hafemann writes: “ The position I am advocating is based on a reassessment of the traditional Lutheran, Calvinistic and dispensational view of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. The traditional view saw a conflict between the two, with the law viewed narrowly as God’s demand for sinless obedience as the ground of our salvation, while the gospel called for faith In God’s grace in Christ, who kept the Law perfectly in our place.”

Hafemann does not understand correctly the antithesis he is opposing. Yes, the law is the divine demand for perfection (and also for satisfaction for sins). But he is wrong to focus on a demand for perfection being replaced by a demand for faith. The proper difference would not be faith but the righteousness obtained and imputed by God. What the law demands the gospel gives.

Hafemann is inattentive to three facts about the divine alien righteousness. First, Christ died under the curse of God’s law only for the elect alone. Second, faith has as its object not just any Jesus or any “grace”, but the Jesus who satisfied the law for all who will be justified (and not for the non-elect). Third, this faith is not only a sovereign gift but a righteous gift, given on behalf of Christ and His law-work (Philippians 1:29; John 17).

These three facts are denied by Lutherans and are not being taught by Calvnistic neo-nomian moralists. When Hafemann makes the difference to be between a demand for faith and a demand for perfect obedience, the only thing left to discuss Is the nature of faith. And this is where Hafemann goes: does faith include works or not? If faith works and faith is an instrument, why can’t works of faith be an instrument? Since faith is a result of regeneration, won’t that faith confess the Lordship of the Savour?

Of course Hafemann does discuss the object of faith. His theme is that the law/gospel antithesis is wrong to put all the emphasis on the past. He denies that the past work of Christ is sufficient or the only object of faith. He insists that we look also to the life of Christ in us, and to the future work of Christ in us.

If the gospel is about righteousness, and if the gospel is (also) about what happens in us, then is the righteousness not yet complete? Even though I agree that regeneration is part of the gospel, what the Holy Spirit produces in us is not any part of the righteousness.

To his great credit, Hafemann openly acknowledges his differences with the law/grace antithesis. He thinks his different gospel is more biblical. I think we would all see the difference between the two gospels if we stopped explaining the antithesis by talking only about “faith alone”. The word “imputation” is missing from Hafemann’ s description of the gospel he is opposing. So is the concept of an “alien righteousness”.

The real point of the law-gospel antithesis is not “conflict”. It is non-identity. The law is not the gospel. The gospel is not the law. The gospel, however, is about the satisfaction of God’s law for God’s elect. Though law and gospel are not the same thing, they are not opposed because they never claim to have the same function. Law says what God demands. Gospel says how Christ satisfied that demand for the elect. The law never offered life off probation; not only one sin would put you under its curse, no matter how many acts of obedience to the law, the law could never promise everlasting life.

Hafemann thinks that the antithesis understands “Christ to bring the law to an end in the sense of abolishment”. The antithesis does NOT understand Romans 10:4 in terms of abrogation. The “end of the law” is Christ completing all that the law demanded, so that there is no remainder left for the Spirit enabled Christian to do. The gospel says DONE. The gospel does not say “to be done by the life of Christ in the elect”.

Hafemann unfairly reduces the law/gospel antithesis to the abolishment of law. While that it is a good description of Lutheranism and dispensationalism, it misses what the gospel says about Christ’s satisfaction of the law for the elect. Christians sin, and therefore their “fulfillment of the law” (see for example, Romans 13) cannot ever satisfy the law. But the law will not go unsatisfied.

The law, once satisfied by Christ, now demands the salvation of all the elect, for whom the law was satisfied. God the Father would not be just, and God the Son would not be glorified, if the distribution of the justly earned benefits were now conditioned on the imperfect faith of sinners. Yes, faith is necessary for the elect, but even this faith is a gift earned by the righteousness of God in Christ’s work.

This is how the law/gospel antithesis explains Romans 3:31. The law is not nullified but honored by Christ. The only way that its requirements will ever be fully satisfied in the elect (Romans 8:4) is by the imputation of what Christ earned. “Not under law” means not under the curse and not under further demands “for righteousness”.

But to Hafemann, to Wesley, and to all other legalists, Christ’s taking away the sanctions of the law for the elect means eliminating the practical importance of what God demands from all human beings and results in antinomianism.

Back to footnote 6 on page 244: “In this view, the law itself taught a legalism that Adam and Israel failed to keep but that God continues to demand in order to drive us to the gospel.” I want to think about this “legalism”. Hafemann does not define it. Does it mean a demand for perfection? If God demands perfection, is God therefore a “legalist”? It seems to me that the only alternative to a demand for perfection is either no law at all or a “new” demand which calls only for imperfect righteousness so that “grace” makes up the difference.

Hafemann is simply following in the wake of Barthians like the Torrances who reject the “contract God” who demands perfection and operates by justice. These Barthians put “grace” and not justice into the pre-fall situation of Adam.

If the law were the gospel, even saying that there’s law (in the garden and now) would be “legalism”. But God is a legalist against legalism. God has told us that the law is not the gospel and that it never was the gospel. Romans 11:5—“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is not on the basis of works; otherwise grace would not be grace.”

It is Hafemann who is the legalist, because he identifies law and gospel, and then reduces the demand to including what the Spirit does in the elect. But what God does in us (by grace) must be excluded from the righteousness. What God does in us (by grace) is necessary for a different reason than the satisfaction of God ‘s law.

Legalism is lookng to what’s happening in you to still get the law satisfied. In the process of “getting busy for God”, legalists always stop looking completely to what CHRIST GOT DONE ALREADY. What Christ got done was done only for the elect, and not at all for the non-elect. So what Christ already did is the difference between saved and lost.

Yes, there were some forms of dispensationalism which taught that God has more than one gospel. And many non-dispensationalists claim that the OT saints only knew about God’s Lordship or about resurrection. Also of course, most evangelicals tend to teach that “grace” is mostly about what happens in the sinner.

Yes, the “covenant of works” theory teaches a ”hypothetical gospel” in which Adam supposedly “could have” earned righteousness for others by keeping the law. One clear way to say that the law is not the gospel is to say that the it was not the gospel for Adam either. But neither the “covenant of works” nor the plural gospels of dispensationalism are inherent to the law/gospel antithesis.

Hafemann does at least resist reducing everything down to one “the covenant of grace”. Even though he claims that neither the old nor the new covenants demand perfect righteousness, Hafemann wants to focus on the increased power “available” in the new covenant. For him, it is easier (do-able) for those in the new covenant to get it done.

Hafemann seems to think that “legalism” is not giving the Spirit the credit for what you did!. But as long as you are careful to say “thank you God that I am not like this”, and you– not like some– really mean that when you sincerely say it, then you are not a legalist.

As long as you credit God as the power for your works, then Hafemann has no problem putting your obedience into the equation as being a necessary part of the righteousness demanded. Of course, since he does not think our works are perfect, and yet does not think that what Christ got done apart from our works is complete enough, Hafemann has to say that God does not require a perfect righteousness.

Read carefully what Hafemann writes about the “obedience of faith” (p188): “Still others consider obedience to God’s law to be the necessary evidence of faith. For them, if one believes, then obedience becomes the mandatory sign of something else, namely faith, which is the human response to God’s grace that actually saves us. Faith must lead to obedience as a sign that it is real.”

While that it is an accurate description of most Calvinists’ theory about assurance, it is not biblical assurance. We do not work to get assurance. We must have assurance before our works are acceptable to God. But most Calvinists, along with the Arminians, think that faith is the response that saves us. Yes, they disagree about the cause and source of faith, but they both leave election out of their “atonement” and out of their “gospel”.

It does not matter that some Arminians say that there was “substitutionary satisfaction” for every sinner, since they think faith is what actually saves. It does not matter that some Calvinists say that there were “multiple-purposes” for the atonement, so that the propitiation was only for the elect, since they preach that it’s God gift of faith which actually saves.

Though the true gospel knows that the justification of the ungodly does not happen until righteousness is imputed and faith is created by hearing the gospel, the true gospel knows that it is the righteousness alone (and not the faith created) which satisfies God’s law.

The legalist Calvinist of course is careful to say that works are the evidence of Christ’s work in them. Nevertheless, the legalist does not test his works by his doctrine of righteousness. The legalist thinks you can be wrong about the doctrine of righteousness, and still give evidence by works of one’s salvation. They raise doubts about those who oppose “Lordship salvation”, but not about sincere hard-working Arminians.

As Hebrews 9:14 and Romans 7:4-6 teach us, that a person not yet submitted to the righteousness revealed in the gospel is still an evil worker, bringing forth fruit unto death. (See Matthew 7.) Since both the Arminian and the legalist Calvinist agree that not everybody will be saved but not about how many sinners Christ died for, they both get assurance from the “tenor of life” of the professing believer.

Indeed, unless we are universalists or fatalists (some Primitive Baptists are both), we cannot avoid the search for evidence. But we need to see that the evidence is submission to the gospel, which involves knowledge about election, imputation and satisfaction. It is a waste of time to talk about other “evidence” unless a person knows what the gospel is. Only after a person knows what the gospel is, can we then ask if that person judges by that gospel.

There is no need to waste time talking about works until we know if a person has repented of Arminianism. If a person still thinks she was saved as an Arminian, then she has not yet obeyed the gospel, no matter how much knowledge she has or how many works she has. Many works prove nothing!

We first test ourselves to see if we have excluded works as being any part of our righteousness before God. To include the works (done it is said by the Spirit) in the righteousness is evidence all by itself that a person still believes a false gospel. Along with legalism comes indifference about the question of election and about the truth that Christ did not die for the non-elect. Such things don’t matter to the legalist, since what got done on the cross is not enough anyway for the legalist.

Read Hafemann: “In other views, obedience may be possible, desirable, or maybe even necessary as the byproduct of trusting Christ, but it is not an essential expression of what it means to trust Christ in and of itself.” (p188) He is trusting in the false Christ who is now getting the rest of it done imperfectly in us.

He is putting the stress on the nature and quality of faith, but not on the righteousness complete by Christ which should be the only object of faith. Those with false gospels debate about if faith is alone or if faith includes works. They squabble about the “instrumentality” of faith alone. But the false gospels all fail to see that the sovereignty of God without the completed righteousness of God is still not good news.

There are many false gospels and only one true gospel. There are many different ways to be “legalist”. The only way not to be legalist is to know that the law demands perfect righteousness and that the gospel joyfully explains how Christ satisfied that demand for the elect. One certain result of the righteousness earned by Christ is that the elect will believe this gospel and not any false gospel.

Hafemann does not believe in perfect obedience but instead in “habitual” obedience enabled in us. But who is to say what is “characteristic” (P190)? The self-righteous Pharisee thanks his false god for enabling him to be characteristically different from the state-employee.

The workers who came before the the judgment in Matthew 7 were sure that their works were characteristic enough. They were not antinomians and they were not insincere. They probably believed in election also (or at least the unconditional right of Israel to the land!). But instead of pleading a Christ who got done a perfect righteousness, they pleaded their characteristic deeds.

They didn‘t say they had “faith alone”. They were not into “easy believism”. They didn’t say that their obedience was a “second step” added to their faith. They avoided the law/gospel antithesis that Hafemann wants us to avoid. They thought they were safe. Yet despite their false assurance, they were lost. Why? Was it because they lacked enough “characteristic obedience” or was it because they trusted in the false gospel? That’s a trick question: they were lost because they were born lost, and they never were rescued and we know that because they never believed the revealed gospel.

They trusted a false gospel because they, like all legalists, had flattered themselves about their obedience being acceptable. We who are Christians now must confess that we too once did the same thing, and that it is only because Christ died for us that we came to repent of that false gospel.

Hafemann writes on p60: “God’s promises are given to us unconditionally. Only then, sandwiched between what God has done for us and what he promises to do for us in the future, do we find the commands of God for the present as the necessary link between the two.” This is a false “unconditionality”. It makes the gospel “unconditional” in the same way as the law is: if you do it enough right, then God promises not to kill you…..

I will not at this point deconstruct the Daniel Fuller (John Piper?) distinction between grace as the cause of the conditions and the conditions as the cause of grace. That distinction always keeps falling apart. But why do these people find the distinction necessary? They don’t want to keep talking about election. The idea of “unconditional to the elect sinner, and conditioned only on what Christ got done for the elect sinner” says way too much for them about election. In that kind of election, it is the death of Christ (and not faith) which sets one sinner apart from another. (See Hebrews 10:14)

II Peter One reverses legalism by commanding us to examine our works by first making our calling and election sure. By what gospel were we called? Was it the gospel of “characteristic obedience” or was it the gospel of “Christ paid it all for the elect”? Are you trying to follow Christ as Lord without first submitting to being saved only by God’s perfect righteousness?

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5 Comments on “Our “Characteristic” Obedience or God’s Righteousness?”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    “The law, once satisfied by Christ, now demands the salvation of all the elect, for whom the law was satisfied.”

    1. The language is from Bill Parker, and ultimately from John Owen. 2. Before I was converted, I would have said, I want mercy not justice. 3. Now, I still know the difference between mercy and justice (God does not have to be merciful), but now that I know the gospel,I want justice, I want Christ to be satisfied for what He did by the salvation of all the elect. The end of Isaiah 53….

    4. The language of “now the elect are entitled to all the blessings” bothers some people because it’s used by some people who seem to have forgotten mercy. We need to make some kind of distinction so that we are saying both that a. justice FOR CHRIST demands salvation for us, but ALSO that the salvation for us is mercy FOR US.

    It’s not the either/or the Socinians make it out to be.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Dr. T. David Gordon in his book “Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers” (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2009)
    “Some of the neo-Puritans have apparently determined that the purpose of Christian preaching is to persuade people that they do not, in fact, believe. The subtitle of each of their sermons could accurately be: “I Know You Think You Are a Christian, but You Are Not.” This brand of preaching constantly suggests that if a person does not always love attending church, always look forward to reading the Bible, or family worship, or prayer, then the person is probably not a believer…”

    The hearer falls into one of two categories: one category of listener assumes that the preacher is talking about someone else, and he rejoices (as did the Pharisee over the tax collector) to hear “the other guy” getting straightened out. Another category of listener eventually capitulates and says: “Okay, I’m not a believer; have it your way.” But since the sermon mentions Christ only in passing (if at all), the sermon says nothing about the adequacy of Christ as Redeemer, and therefore does nothing to build faith in Christ.

    “It is painful to hear every passage of Scripture twisted to do what only several of them actually do (i.e., warn the complacent that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven). And it is absolutely debilitating to be told again and again that one does not have faith when one knows perfectly well that one does have faith, albeit weak and imperfect…”

    “So no one profits from this kind of preaching; indeed, both categories of hearer are harmed by it. But I don’t expect it will end anytime soon. The self-righteous like it too much; for them, religion makes them feel good about themselves, because it allows them to view themselves as the good guys and others as the bad guys – they love to hear the preacher scold the bad guys each week. And sadly, the temperament of some ministers is simply officious. Scolding others is their life calling; they have the genetic disposition to be a Jewish mother.” (pp. 83-84)

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Matthew 7: 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Douglas Bond, Grace Works P and R, 2014 p 92—“There are men today who encourage their congregations to tear out the page between the Old and New Testaments in their Bibles. Zealous to avoid the error of dispensationalism, these men make the continuity of the covenants the foundation of their preaching. But I wonder if it is a foundation that is able to support the scandal of grace. If we care about the distinction between law and gospel…then we will train our ears for those who don’t seem to want to keep the distinction between the old and new covenants.Their insistence on “the continuity of the covenants” may prove to be a code phrase for confusing law and gospel. Where there is a merging of the old and new covenants, it will never be the law diminished by gospel. It will always be the gospel fatally diminished by the law.”


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